Training, dedication to help union members

The Report: May / June 1999 vol.19 num.7


Over the last three years it has been my very great privilege to have receivedHSA scholarships to train as a Union Counsellor. This has been one of the most valuableand rewarding experiences of my twenty-one years as an HSA member.

The Union Counselling program is mainly taught at the CLC WinterSchool at Harrison Hot Springs, BC. It is sponsored by the Canadian Labour Congress andtaught by the Labour Participation Department of the United Way of the Lower Mainland.

As of this year, there are three levels of training available. Thefirst year is a basic course designed to introduce participants to union counselling andto foster a desire to continue on with the service and the training. By the end of thecourse, the students are equipped to refer union members to services and agencies in thecommunity.

The second year is an advanced course to further develop skills andknowledge of community resources, to refine interview techniques and to explore programimplementation issues.

New this year is the third level of training, called Critical IncidentStress Management. Participants, already trained as Union Counsellors, are taughtawareness of Critical Incident Stress by senior trainers from lower mainland firedepartments: how to recognize it, and how best to deal with those exposed to it.

There are a growing number of HSA members who have received the UnionCounselling One and Two training, 15 at the basic level, three at the Advanced level, andthere are currently two of us who have completed all three levels of the program.

The aim of the program is to take union members who self-identify asnatural listeners and train them to assist other union members who are experiencingpersonal problems.

The mandate is four-fold:

  1. To be available and reliable.
  2. To listen.
  3. To be non-judgmental.
  4. To enable the member to help themselves.

Union Counsellors are trained in listening skills, assessment andevaluation techniques and, most importantly, referral. Union Counsellors do not offeradvice nor do they attempt to solve the members problem for them. They do encourageand assist that member to find the appropriate help. The Union Counsellor has to be very aware of theresources that their community has to offer in order to be able to effectively refersomeone who has a problem.

Examples of the types of issues that Union Counsellors are called on tohelp with include drug and alcohol problems, abuse, financial difficulties, medical anddental assistance, critical incident stress management and many, many others.

Union Counsellors do not deal with collective agreement issues andlocal stewards are one of the resources to whom members are routinely referred. The UnionCounselling program is not meant to replace the Employee and Family Assistance Program butworks in conjunction with it, if it is an effective program. The Union Counsellor may alsorefer a member to EFAP consultants, if appropriate.

Employers tend to support Union Counselling programs as they see usdealing with "problematic" union members and saving them the time and expense ofhaving to be involved in an often messy situation. The union, on the other hand, prefersto view Union Counselling as a way of extending the "union umbrella" to coverand assist our members, when they wish it, in their personal as well as their professionallives.

Many unions have contract and constitutional language which supportsthe official existence of Union Counsellors in the workplace, and which ensures that theCounsellor has both the time to give to the members and a private location in which tomeet with them.

While we still dont have specific union counselling language inour newly ratified agreement, we do have improvements in our OH&S Article 38. Thisincludes a provision for critical incident stress defusing for traumatized employees. Inorder for this defusing to be effective, it is essential that the CISM program is set upand run by union members. Management has a major role to play in providing the necessaryfunding, but the day-to-day activities and functions of the team have been shown to bemost effective when it is a peer- run program.

Union Counsellors are often the most appropriate people to organizethis program in the work-place. Until now, Union Counsellors have been obliged to functionin an unofficial capacity and on their own time. With the implementation of our newcontract we will have taken a first step towards contract language which will legitimizethe Union Counsellors role and hopefully, this will eventually lead to theestablishment of the Union Counsellor and the Critical Incident Stress Management Team inevery HSA facility.

I would urge you to seek out the Union Counsellors in your own facilityand acquaint yourselves with the services that they can provide to you. In addition, Ihope that you will encourage HSA to provide for additional Union Counselling services bybringing forward resolutions both to our bargaining committee and at our AnnualConvention. These resolutions can guide our union towards providing additional educationfunds to support Union Counselling and CISM at more facilities. This will allow ournegotiating team to take these issues to the table, and eventually get language in ouragreement to allow us all access to these services.

Lyn Blenkinsop is a Radiation Therapist / Research Outcome Analystand Chief Steward at the BC Cancer Agencys Vancouver Island Centre. She is a PeerCounsellor for the Healthcare LabourAdjustment Agency, as well as a Union Counsellor with training from the Canadian Labour Congress.